When the Vancouver Canucks acquired JT Miller at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, it seemed clear that general manager Jim Benning signaled to the rest of the league they were all-in; it was playoffs or bust for this group in the 2019-20 season.
Between a strong season to date and mounting injuries, Benning felt he had to acquire a top-six forward. (from ‘Ed Willes: Canucks believe trade for Toffoli is a message to win now, worry later,’ The Province, 02/19/2020) Tyler Toffoli seems like a great fit on a team with significant injuries right now, even if the price was steep for a pending unrestricted free agent.
The Canucks have a unique opportunity in front of them right now. With Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes still on entry-level contracts and the Pacific Division being open for the taking, the Canucks took a big swing in acquiring the former LA Kings winger Toffoli.
The question now remains for head coach Travis Green: where should Toffoli slot in the lineup? Playing in the top six is a given, but where?
The Pettersson Line
Let’s start with (potentially) the obvious, as through two games Toffoli has played primarily with Elias Pettersson and Miller. So far, the trio has adjusted nicely, posting a 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 53.70, outscoring opponents four-to-one at even strength, and out-chancing opponents at nearly a two-to-one rate.
The early returns on this newly formed trio have been strong. Toffoli has slotted in seamlessly for injured star Brock Boeser. Toffoli already has two goals and four points in just two games since the trade, while Pettersson and Miller have one and five points respectively.
Toffoli himself is a strong play driver. He consistently pushes the puck into the offensive zone while limiting chances against. If Toffoli has a flaw, it’s that he doesn’t score consistently himself — he needs someone to finish the work he does for him.
As the above chart shows, Toffoli does not score nearly as much as he should based on the number of shots and scoring chances he generates. He needs someone who can slot in with him to finish the work he starts.
Enter Pettersson. He has an elite shot that he needs to use more of. He seems like an obvious candidate for Toffoli to play with — he can get the puck into spots where Pettersson can work his magic. From the limited sample we have, this already looks like an exciting combination for the Canucks moving forward.
The Horvat Line
Where most people imagined Toffoli would play is with captain Bo Horvat and his usual wingman, Tanner Pearson. Horvat, it seems, hasn’t had consistent linemates since joining the Canucks until Pearson arrived from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lately, oft-maligned winger Loui Eriksson has been skating with Horvat and Pearson and the results have actually been decent. The trio has generally controlled play at 5-on-5 and has broken even in goals scored.
However, Toffoli could be a better fit on the Canucks’ second line. His chemistry with Pearson is well-documented and dates all the way back to the LA Kings’ then-AHL affiliate Manchester Monarchs.
Horvat and Pearson generate much of their offence in the same way: by driving the front of the net. Toffoli has a similar effect on shots, with much of his offence coming from close range. This line would likely be used in a possession-driven role — they would dominate battles and consistently out-shoot opponents, leading to more scoring chances and goals.
This trio could very well be the Canucks’ second line once Boeser returns from injury and slots in his usual spot next to Pettersson. The Pettersson-Boeser-Miller line should be left alone — they have been one of the NHL’s most dominant lines all season. They consistently out-shoot, out-chance, and out-score opponents at 5-on-5.
Who Should Toffoli Play With?
For now, the best option is for Toffoli to continue playing with Pettersson and Miller. Pettersson’s elite shot and Miller’s heavy, possession-driven style complement Toffoli’s game well. In the two-game sample since the trade, this has proven accurate as the new first line has crushed opposition at 5-on-5.
However, once Boeser returns from injury, Toffoli is likely best suited to slot next to Horvat and Pearson. Boeser’s spot should be safe with Pettersson and Miller as they have crushed opponent’s all season. Toffoli’s game will translate nicely with those new partners. The new second line would be a strong puck-possession trio, capable of generating shots and high-danger scoring chances.
With two strong scoring lines, the Canucks could continue their season of surprise by capturing a Pacific Division title and making their first playoff appearance since the 2014-15 season. With Toffoli in the mix and elite players like Pettersson and Hughes leading the way, anything seems possible for this Canucks team.